Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Suppressing Emotions Can Harm You—Here's What to Do Instead

Making space for emotions goes a long way towards improving mental health.

Key points

  • Suppressing our emotions can lead to physical and mental health problems.
  • Likewise, expressing our emotions all the time, everywhere, can also worsen our health—and our social functioning.
  • To better manage our emotions we can acknowledge their existence, tune into what they're trying to tell us, and make space for them.
  • The more we practice accepting and responding to our emotions, the easier they become to tolerate.

Not every emotion is a pleasant experience. Because of how difficult some emotions can be—especially shame, anger, fear, and sadness—many people try to suppress them.

Suppression may seem appropriate in certain situations. You may be upset your date didn't text you back but your best friend tells you her father just passed away, so you pipe down about your problems to be present for her grief. But too much reliance on suppression can harm us—literally, by increasing our risk of dying earlier, if we're not careful.

It also doesn't work. We're more apt to think about and feel things we try to avoid. Plus, suppressing our emotions deprives us of key information about our values, motivations, needs, and boundaries.

Here's a closer look at why emotional suppression backfires, and how you can give emotions the space they need.

Unsplash | Sydney Sims
Source: Unsplash | Sydney Sims

First, A Primer on Emotions

Emotions are physiological states that mobilize us for particular behaviors and communicate important information about our internal and external environments to ourselves and others. Anger mobilizes us to attack, and signals that a boundary, value, or rule has been violated. Fear mobilizes us to freeze or flee and signals threat or danger. Shame mobilizes us to hide and signals low social status. Guilt mobilizes us to make amends and signals remorse. Joy motivates us to approach and signals reward.

Emotions differ from feelings in that they can exist outside our conscious awareness. Feelings, by contrast, require cognitive appraisal—they are our conscious interpretation and labeling of emotional states and other sensations.

There’s some debate over how many emotions exist—some research suggests there are 27 distinct ones—but most can be categorized under the “Big Ten.”

The Primary Emotions (present at birth):

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Disgust
  • Surprise

The Social Emotions (present around age 18 months):

  • Shame (feeling that one is bad)
  • Guilt (feeling the one has done something bad)
  • Embarrassment
  • Pride

Why Suppressing Emotion Backfires

Suppression entails the purposeful stuffing down or denial of emotions. This differs from modulating emotional expression, which entails recognizing an emotion, allowing it to inform your behavior, and integrating feedback from your environment and memory to adjust the emotion's volume so it doesn't undermine your goals. With suppression, you're trying to negate the emotion's existence—which, it turns out, isn't exactly possible, nor good for you.

Suppressing emotions increases our stress levels. Researchers have monitored people's sympathetic nervous system activity (a proxy for stress levels, measured by skin conductance and pulse monitors) while having them watch films eliciting, joy, sadness, and disgust. When instructed to watch the movie freely, participants show no observable sympathetic nervous system activation (a.k.a. little to no stress). When instructed to suppress their emotions, however, sympathetic nervous system activation shoots up (indicating a spike in stress).

This increase in stress helps explain why regular emotion suppressers tend to bring higher risks of heart disease and hypertension. Because a major function of emotions is to communicate our internal states with others, it's also no surprise that individuals who suppress their emotions feel less socially connected and satisfied with their friends. They're also more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

A Healthier Way to Manage Emotions

Alas, expressing emotions in all their intensity also doesn't seem to be great for our physical, mental, and social health. Unbridled expression of anger can increase people's risk of heart attack, for example. And being around families with high levels of expressed emotion can make individuals treated for schizophrenia more likely to relapse. Likewise, indulging the same emotion without end (as one does when ruminating out of worry or anger) increases people's risk of mental health issues.

What, then, are we to do with emotions? Instead of suppressing or excessively expressing them, we need to accept and respond to them.

Accepting and responding to an emotion entails noticing its presence (often, its physical presence in our body), softening our resistance to it, tuning into what it's trying to tell us, and using that information to inform (but not dictate) our behavior.

Let's say I'm mad I didn't get a raise. I feel under-appreciated, stressed about money, and think I've worked hard enough to deserve it. I may want to give my boss an earful. But knowing this will undermine my chance of getting a future raise, I recognize and listen to the anger I feel, notice it's trying to tell me a boundary has been violated, and I use this information to guide my behavior. Maybe I take a brisk walk to blow off steam, then set up a meeting with my boss to discuss my concerns—or begin looking for another job.

Or, let's say I'm sad about losing a beloved pet. I want to get over it and get back to normal. But instead of denying my sadness, I listen to it, ask what it needs (likely, comfort and consolation), and try to provide myself what it needs, perhaps through my close relationships, a therapist, or a support group. Rather than letting my sadness bar my participation in activities I value, I make space for my sadness and carry it with me to them, even if I'm a bit blue in the process.

An Exercise To Help With Difficult Emotions

Next time you feel an uncomfortable emotion you want to suppress (or scream about), try doing the following:

  • Notice where the emotion is in your body
  • Notice the emotion's sensory qualities (is it hot, tense, heavy, small? What is its texture? Its shape?)
  • Ask the emotion what it's trying to tell you
  • Ask the emotion what it needs from you (sometimes this can simply be "reassurance" or "acknowledgment")
  • Thank the emotion for the information it's trying to give you
  • Offer the emotion what it needs from you (try saying "may you have ____")
  • Invite the emotion to come with you—in your back pocket, say—as you go about pursuing your daily objectives and obligations.

The more we recognize, allow, and make space for our emotions, the greater tolerance we build for them. With greater tolerance, we're better able to modulate our emotions so they don't overwhelm our decision-making abilities or reason, or seem so unbearable that we have to suppress them. It may not always feel easy to respond rather than react to our emotions, but each time we try to do so, we get that much better at it.

More from Katherine Cullen MFA, LCSW
More from Psychology Today